A tumor in a lung.
80% to 85% of all lung cancer cases are non-small cell.

What Is Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer?

Lung health is vital to provide oxygen to your body. Unfortunately, conditions, such as cancer, affect how your lungs operate. If the function of your lungs is jeopardized by non-small cell lung cancer, what does that mean for your health? In this article, we answer the question: “What is non-small cell lung cancer?” We also talk about the symptoms and treatment options.

Understanding Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Lung cancer happens when the cells in the body mutate and grow uncontrollably. This type of cancer starts in the lungs, and in advanced cases, lung cancer spreads to other body parts. Lung cancer can be categorized into two main types: small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. Non-small cell lung cancers make up about 80% to 85% of all lung cancers.

There are some subtypes of non-small cell lung cancer:

Adenocarcinoma

This type of lung cancer typically starts in cells that secrete substances and is likely found in former smokers. Adenocarcinoma is usually found in the outer part of the lungs and generally able to be caught before it metastasizes. This is the most common type of cancer for non-smokers and is found more often in women than in men.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

This lung cancer starts in the squamous cells—the flat cells lining the inside of the lungs’ airways. Cancer cells of this variety are generally found near the main airway in the central part of the lungs. Squamous cell carcinoma is often associated with individuals who have a history of smoking.

Large-Cell (Undifferentiated) Carcinoma

This cancer can appear in any part of the lung. These types of cells can grow and spread quickly, which complicates the cancer treatment process.

Causes of Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

The biggest contributor and risk factor for non-small cell lung cancers is smoking, including cigarettes, pipes and cigars. Not all smokers get lung cancer, and non-smokers can contract lung cancer as well, indicating other factors besides smoking are at play. Other potential causes and risk factors:

  • Inhaling second-hand smoke
  • Exposure to air pollution
  • Exposure to certain chemicals or fumes, such as asbestos or arsenic
  • Exposure to radiation, which may include radiation therapy, radon, or imaging tests, such as CT scans
  • Genetics or a family history of lung cancer may influence how your cells grow, divide, or stay alive
  • HIV infection
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What Are Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Symptoms?

It may take a long period of time for lung cancer symptoms to develop or become noticeable, since the cells may grow slowly. Some lung cancer symptoms to watch out for:

  • An ongoing cough that cannot be attributed to a specific cause
  • Painful or difficult breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Hoarseness or wheezing
  • Frequent upper respiratory infections
  • A cough that produces bloody phlegm
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Bone pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Lumps
  • Nerve damage due to tumor growth
  • Swelling in the face and/or veins in the neck

If you are at risk and you exhibit symptoms of non-small cell lung cancer, book an appointment with your doctor to get checked out.

Treatment Options

The earlier cancer is found, the easier it can be to treat. The treatment you receive is based primarily on the stage of non-small cell lung cancer. Treatment can be influenced by a patient’s overall health and certain characteristics of the cancer cells or tumor. There are several options to treat non-small cell lung cancer:

  • Radiation therapy: This is a treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other radiation to kill cancer cells or stop their growth. External radiation uses a machine outside the body and sends radiation toward the cancer site. Internal radiation uses a radioactive substance that is placed directly into or near the cancer cells using a needle, wire, or catheter.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is a chemical drug treatment is given via infusion, injection, or orally. Chemotherapy uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells.
  • Targeted therapy: This is a treatment that uses drugs (or other substances) to identify and attack specific cancer cells.
  • Immunotherapy: A patient’s immune system is used to fight cancer cells using natural or laboratory-produced substances to boost, direct, or restore the body’s defense system.
  • Laser therapy: An intense beam of light (a laser) is used to kill cancer cells. This type of surgery may provide symptom relief in late-stage lung cancer patients.
  • Photodynamic therapy: This therapy uses drugs that kill cancer cells when exposed to specific laser light. This therapy may help relieve symptoms in late-stage patients.
  • Cryosurgery: Physicians administer extreme cold, such as liquid nitrogen, to freeze and destroy abnormal tissues.
  • Electrocautery: A physician uses a probe heated by an electric current to destroy abnormal tissues.
  • Surgery: There are many surgical options depending on where the cancer is located and how far it has advanced. Some types of surgery are a wedge resection to remove a tumor and some of the surrounding normal tissue, a lobectomy surgery removes an entire lobe (section) of a lung, and pneumonectomy surgery, which removes a whole lung (only one side of the lungs, not both, as that would require a lung transplant). There’s also a sleeve resection, which removes part of the bronchus.
  • Watchful waiting: In rare cases of non-small cell lung cancer, treatment involves not doing anything except monitoring a patient’s condition until signs or symptoms appear or change. When these changes occur and the doctor sees what the cancer does, they formulate the next step in the treatment plan.

Keep in Mind

With many treatments available, non-small cell lung cancer can be managed, and in several cases, can put cancer in remission. Discovering and treating cancer in the early stages gives you more treatment options and generally a better prognosis.